Anna Maynard found herself more than 10,000 feet in the air in early June on the side of Africa’s tallest mountain, short of breath and desperate for a break.
“I felt like there was no way I could do it. It was just so intense,” Maynard, 20, of Fairview, said. “I kept panicking and asking our guide to check my oxygen tank.”
Maynard, a junior at Vanderbilt University majoring in Spanish and human and organizational development, had the opportunity to climb and conquer Mount Kilimanjaro when she traveled to the town of Arusha, Tanzania, for five weeks to teach a group of 16 women living with HIV or AIDS basic business skills, English, how to create and market crafts, health classes and to provide emotional support.
“It was eye-opening,” Maynard said. “The biggest impact was seeing the way these women were affected emotionally by the disease. You can’t see that in a textbook or read that online.”
Maynard traveled to Africa as part of a service trip for the Peabody Scholars Honor program she was selected for at Vanderbilt. Each student who is part of the program could choose any place he or she wanted to travel to volunteer as long as the program’s advisors approved. The program is selective; there are only 15 students chosen each year, said the program’s director, Leslie Kirby.
“Our goal is to get them to be creative problem solvers and go out into the world and do good,” said Kirby, who is also a senior lecturer at Vanderbilt. “We want them to come back with the ability to take their experience and enact change in the real world and on campus from it.”
Maynard left in early May, traveled with one other student from the group, and finished climbing Kilimanjaro on June 5.
“I’m so interested in women’s empowerment so it made sense for me to travel there to address the issues of HIV and AIDS and how that affects women and their empowerment there,” she said.
She spent four weeks getting to know the group of women, all of whom were affected by HIV or AIDS, and mostly spoke Swahili.
“We taught them English and … about mental health, basic things they didn’t know about, like the food pyramid,” Maynard said. “Every day was a little bit different.”
The group also focused on helping the African women understanding HIV and AIDS.
“Some of these women were identified as living in extremely vulnerable situations,” Maynard said. “It’s really common for a woman to be living with HIV or AIDS. Nearly 1 in 5 people there have it, and it’s really sad.”
After her volunteer service, she’d planned to climb Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain and the world’s tallest mountain that’s not part of a range. She spent six days climbing the Machame route with two other women.
“Each day, you hike through a different habitat, each more beautiful than the last,” she said. “You begin in the rainforest, then to moorland, semi-desert, alpine desert and then on day five, the Arctic.”
However, the climb was far from all sunshine and butterflies.
“Honestly, the pictures are deceiving,” she said. “You look at them and we’re smiling, but you’re just ready to quit. You have to really push your body and your limits.”
They climbed around 5 to 8 miles each day. The group used a tour guide, though he barely spoke English.
“It (each day) felt like 20 miles due to the effects the altitude had on my body,” she said. “I dealt with headaches that were really intense, migraines, fatigue, nausea. Plus you feel like you can’t breathe the whole time.”
The group’s timing was also a little bit off for reaching Kilimanjaro’s peak at the proper time. Normally groups attempt to reach the peak as the sun is rising, but Maynard’s group got a late start.
“We were summiting when the sun was completely out at the top of the mountain, so we had the direct UV rays hitting us at a very high altitude,” she said. “When we woke up the next morning, our faces were so swollen. My friend’s hands blew up. My other friend and I had what looked like windburn all over our faces and chins.”
Around 65 percent of all hikers that start the climb complete it each year, according to Climb Kilimanjaro Guide, an online guide that offers advice on climbing. For 6-day routes, like the one Maynard chose, that success rate falls to around 44 percent, according to the guide.
For Maynard, the struggle was well worth it in the end.
“This trip changed my life,” Maynard said. “It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I just feel so accomplished.”